Direct Response in Crisis Mode: Learning From Experience

There’s an old saying in direct response that whatever new creative concept everyone in the office likes most is the one most likely to fail.  And it’s true, new ideas we find exciting generally don’t do as well as the long-standing control creative that keeps performing year after year.

In extraordinary times like the pandemic we’ve experienced our instinct is to react, adapt, respond.  The challenge is that every aspect of a good direct response program – creative, timing, audience – is in place because each was tested and proven effective. Replacing proven techniques with new, untested ones is risky and historically likely to underperform.

From the crash of 1987 through the attacks of 9/11 to the great recession of 2008-9, organizations that made the fewest changes to their campaign plans came through in the best shape. In 2020, we have digital appeals that can be changed and adapted almost overnight. With this added temptation, what to do about direct mail campaigns that take months from creation to completion and, once changed or cancelled, can’t be readily replaced?

While making these decisions, it’s important to remember that your donors are mostly very different from you and your colleagues.  The majority are older, retired, and in comfortable circumstances. They give because they feel blessed and want to help others. They likely feel even more so when society is in crisis and people need help. If there is one thing the COVID-19 crisis underscored, it is that we all have a role to play in making things better.

Here are some other truths to consider as we all do our best to find our footing post-peak-pandemic.

The most vulnerable are not always evident

There are certain moments when your mission may not feel like the most relevant in the day-to-day lives of your donors. Those moments are shorter than you think and, as the old saying goes, you and your colleagues make a terrible test panel.  Even though revenue might decline in a crisis, cancelling an appeal to your active donors is a bad idea. If you mail an appeal each month, you don’t have an open window, and response to future appeals will not increase to make up the loss from a cancelled campaign.

We are all connected

You might be tempted to limit acquisition, but if you cancel it altogether your active donor file will shrink and future revenue will be lost.  Remember that 35-40% of your active donors don’t renew each year and you need to replace those donors through reactivation or acquisition or face a long-term downturn.

Communication silos no longer exist

There’s evidence that donor response to digital media saw a big gain during the social distancing of COVID-19. Look for ways to continue to combine direct mail with email or social media campaigns to reach your donors and prospects through multiple media with the same campaign message. The digital component can help replace revenue lost through soft response or from cuts made to volume.

People want to help

If you alter copy, alter it to demonstrate how your organization is in jeopardy of not reaching your goals and funding your important work, and how you are depending more than ever on the generosity of your loyal supporters. Never do anything to discourage giving, such as asking sustainers if they want to stop giving. Donors give to you because they choose to, don’t try to talk them out of it.

Clint Eastwood describes his acting style as “Don’t just do something, stand there.” In tough times avoiding the urge to change plans is hard, but when there’s no sure way to know what will happen, sticking with a good strategy is generally the best response.

By: Stephanie Ceruolo and Larry May, Infogroup Nonprofit Solutions